Authors: RITA HERRON
Tags: #ROMANCE - - SUSPENSE
* * *
ranch from a distance, his nerves on edge. Coach Wake had been arrested. He’d caused the crash that had killed three girls and the bus driver.
And he had killed Ruth.
Soon everyone would know that. Or at least they would
would be in the clear.
Unless...Tawny-Lynn remembered his face. That he’d been there that day.
Damn her and her sister, Peyton. All these years he’d wondered where in the hell she was. Why she hadn’t come forward.
It was all her fault. She’d seduced that coach and made him want the other young girls on the team. How many had he taken advantage of?
The man deserved to die. But if he went to jail for four counts of murder, at least he’d rot in jail without parole.
But Tawny-Lynn... She was a problem. She had seen his face today.
One day she still might remember....
It was time he got rid of her for good.
After his parents left, Chaz decided to question Coach Wake. He wanted his gut reaction before the lawyer showed up and stalled the case with legalities.
Chaz strode back to the cell and found the coach sitting on the bare cot with his head in his hands.
“Talk to me, Coach.”
Coach Wake shot him an angry look. “You made a mistake. I never hurt any of those girls.”
“Really?” Chaz folded his arms. “Because I have a witness who claims that you pressured her to have sex. That she wasn’t the only teenager or girl on the team that you slept with.”
“I love my wife,” Coach Wake said. “And I love coaching. I can’t help it if some impressionable student has a crush on me. It happens to coaches all the time. Doesn’t mean I did anything about it.”
“This girl has no reason to lie,” Chaz said.
“If that’s true, then tell me who she is.”
Chaz shook his head. “Not yet. But I wanted to give you the opportunity to do the right thing and confess before things get dirty.”
“They will get dirty because I intend to sue you for false arrest and defamation of character.”
Chaz grunted, his hands tightening around the bars of the cell. He wanted to choke the truth out of the bastard. “When I finish with you, you’ll be begging me for a deal. You killed my sister and you’re going to pay for it.”
“I didn’t kill Ruth,” he shouted. “She got out of that bus alive.”
following the bus and caused it to crash.”
“That’s not what I said.”
“I know for a fact that you tried to pressure her into having sex, and that when she threatened to tell my parents, you chased down that bus, ran into it and forced it over the ravine.”
Panic streaked the coach’s face. “That damn Tawny-Lynn. That’s what she told you? Did she finally remember something?”
The quiver in his voice confirmed his guilt in Chaz’s mind. “So you admit to being there. But you didn’t do anything to save those girls, did you? You left them there to die.”
The coach scrubbed a hand over his face, stood and paced the cell. “I’m not admitting anything.”
“And when Tawny-Lynn came back, you got worried so you tried to kill her.”
Wake clammed up. “I want my lawyer.”
Chaz simply glared at him. “Fine. But you are going to jail, Coach. And tomorrow everyone in town is going to know what you did to their children.”
“I’m innocent,” Coach Wake protested.
Chaz simply turned and left the man to stew in the cell. It would be the first of many nights he’d sleep alone on a cold cot. Maybe one day he’d even feel remorse for what he’d done. Although he didn’t appear to feel anything now except the need to protect himself.
But for the first time in years, especially the last two weeks since Tawny-Lynn had returned to Camden Crossing, Chaz allowed himself to relax when he got home.
Even though they’d found out Ruth was dead, they had closure in the arrest of Coach Wake. They knew what had happened to Peyton.
And Tawny-Lynn was safe.
Maybe she’d even decide to stay at White Forks.
He paused as he set the take-out meal he’d picked up at the diner on his table, wondering where that thought had come from. He’d known all along that Tawny-Lynn was here to put White Forks on the market, and that there was no love lost between her and the town.
Hell, some of the townsfolk would probably be furious at Peyton for staying away and leaving them in the dark for so long.
He opened up the foam box and inhaled the savory scent of homemade meat loaf and mashed potatoes and gravy. His mouth watered. He tried to recall what he’d had for lunch, then remembered he hadn’t eaten.
No wonder he was ravenous.
He’d deal with the fallout from the arrest and Peyton’s arrival in town tomorrow. His deputy was staying at the jail, watching over their prisoner.
Tonight he was going to steal some much-needed sleep.
He wolfed down the food and chased it with a cold beer, then walked to his office nook and studied the photographs on the wall.
Wake would probably have a lawyer and bail in the next twenty-four hours. Unless Chaz could convince the judge to remand him until his trial.
He phoned his contact at the paper and TV station and requested another press conference. As soon as he had Peyton’s official statement in the morning, he’d announce the news of Wake’s arrest.
The parents of the dead teens would be riled at the coach, and it would no doubt be an emotional day, but at least now they would have justice.
When his parents finally buried Ruth in the graveyard at their church, her killer would be rotting in jail. And if Wake had pressured other girls to sleep with him, maybe once Peyton went public, the others would, too.
Then he’d make sure Coach Wake never hurt anyone else.
* * *
. Flames burst through the air, eating at the ceiling and seats. Smoke clogged Tawny-Lynn’s lungs as she opened her eyes.
Someone had dragged her from the bus. Her sister. Peyton was alive.
She struggled to sit up, but pain throbbed through every cell in her body. Her leg hurt the most. Then she looked down and saw that it was twisted at an odd angle.
She tried to scream over the noise of the exploding glass as the bus blew, but her voice came out a hoarse whisper.
Where was Peyton?
She blinked, but smoke clogged her vision. Then she saw him...a man...dragging Ruth away.
Panic bubbled inside her. She tried to see the man’s face, but he was too far away. Then he turned and looked at her, and she cried out....
His face was blank. An empty black hole....
Tawny-Lynn startled awake and sat up in bed, her pulse clamoring as she looked around the room. It was empty. No one inside.
Only the man from her nightmares. She felt his evil permeating her. Felt his eyes boring into her.
She clenched the sheets, desperately forcing the image back into her head.
A man dragging Ruth away. He wore a dark coat....something gold glinted in the darkness. A ring of some kind?
Or had she imagined it? Maybe it had been embers sparking from the flames.
Was the man Coach Wake? Had she blocked out his face because she’d been too shocked to see him hauling Ruth away?
* * *
trilled, jarring him from sleep at 6:00 a.m. He reached for it as he climbed from bed and walked to the kitchen to make coffee.
“Sheriff, you’d better get down here now.”
Chaz blinked. “What’s going on?”
“The parents of the three girls who died in the crash are here along with your father. I swear, we’ve got a lynch mob on our hands.”
Chaz cursed. He should have foreseen that his father would call the other parents.
“I’m on my way.” He ended the call, rushed to the bathroom and splashed water on his face, then hurriedly dressed. He picked up coffee on the way, knowing he needed a clear head, and to calm down, because he felt like throwing his father in jail for stirring up trouble.
By the time he arrived, Coach Wake’s wife and Alvin Lambert, Wake’s attorney, had joined the scene. His deputy stood by the door leading to the back of the jail with his hand at his gun. Lambert had strategically pushed Mrs. Wake to the opposite side and was guarding her as if he expected the parents to physically assault her.
“No one sees Wake until the sheriff says so,” his deputy said as Chaz entered.
Chaz’s father stood to the right of the other parents, calmer today, although his eyes were livid, revenge flaring in their depths.
Chaz shot him a scathing look. He’d deal with him later.
“Is it true?” Mrs. Pullman asked, her face tormented.
“Coach Wake forced girls to have sex then killed our children!” Mr. Marx shouted.
“Did he?” Mrs. Truman cried.
Chaz held up a hand to calm them. “Listen to me, and listen good. I did make an arrest, but I need time to gather evidence and interrogate Coach Wake.”
“If he killed our daughters, you can’t let him go free,” Mr. Truman said sharply.
“Please, Sheriff,” Mrs. Pullman whispered. “We’ve waited all this time for the truth.”
“Trust me, I know how you feel. We all want justice.” Chaz cleared his throat to stop another onslaught of questions. “But you have to leave now and let me do my job.”
“Sheriff,” Lambert cut in. “I need to speak to my client.”
“Why are you doing this to my husband?” Mrs. Wake cried. “He’s a good man. He would never hurt one of his students.”
The door opened and Peyton and Tawny-Lynn walked in. Shadows rimmed Tawny-Lynn’s big eyes, but Peyton looked much calmer than he expected. Still, when they spotted the group in the office, they both halted warily.
Shouts and chaos erupted.
“Oh, my God!”
“You’ve been hiding your sister!”
Chaz stepped in front of the two women, a protective stance. “If everyone will calm down, I’ll explain.”
“You knew she was alive?” Mr. Marx asked.
“Why did you leave our girls to die?” Mrs. Pullman demanded.
Chaz motioned for them to be quiet with his hand. “I’ve called a press conference in an hour to announce this arrest. Now everyone listen.”
A strained hush fell over the room. Chaz stepped aside and ushered Tawny-Lynn and Peyton inside, then separated them from the ill-tempered group by indicating they stand behind the desk.
His father was shooting daggers through both the Boulder girls, his mother wringing her hands together, the others in the room studying them in muted shock.
“Now,” Chaz began. “Peyton Boulder survived the crash seven years ago, but she ran and left town out of fear.”
“What were you afraid of?” His father asked. “That everyone would find out you were a tramp?”
Chaz spun toward his father. “Dad, if you say one more word, I’m going to throw you in a cell. Now shut up and listen.”
Mrs. Wake leaned into her husband’s lawyer as if her legs were about to buckle. If she hadn’t known about her husband’s affairs, he felt sorry for her.
Then again, everyone was innocent until proven guilty. But he believed Peyton’s story.
He gestured toward Peyton. “I’m sorry that I ran,” Peyton said. “But I was scared.”
“Scared of what?” Mrs. Pullman asked gently.
Peyton sank into the chair behind the desk. Tawny-Lynn stood behind her with her hand on Peyton’s shoulder for support. Then she spilled her story, the same one she’d told Chaz.
Gasps of outrage and sorrow rumbled through the room. “Did he pressure our daughters into sex?” Mr. Marx asked.
Pain radiated in Peyton’s eyes. “I don’t know. Honestly. We...never talked about it. In fact, I didn’t tell anyone except Ruth. She knew I had a crush on him and, when he approached her, she wanted me to know. I realized then that he was a user and told her to go to her parents. The coach met up with her after the game, and she told him she was going to tell her parents. He exploded and threatened us.”
She rubbed her temple, her voice strained. “I saw his car come up behind the bus, then he hit us and the bus spun out of control. I guess I hit my head when we went over the embankment, because when I came to, blood was everywhere. My sister was on the floor, trapped, and I dragged her out. But I didn’t see Ruth anywhere. I was running back to try to save the other girls, but...the bus suddenly burst into flames.” Tears trickled down her face, her voice cracking on a sob. “I—I’m so sorry, I wanted to help them, but fire was shooting out on all sides. And I couldn’t get back in.”
A deafening silence fell across the room, everyone lost in bitter memories and grief and the horrific images Peyton had painted in their heads. Images that obviously tortured Peyton every day.
“What happened then?” Mrs. Pullman asked as she dried her own eyes.
“I saw Coach Wake at the top of the ravine where the bus went over. He was watching the bus burn.”
Gasps of outrage filled the room. “That son of a bitch,” Mr. Marx muttered.
“I can’t believe he just stood there,” Mrs. Pullman whispered.
Peyton nodded, the shock of the memory haunting her eyes. “Then I realized that if Coach could just stand there and watch, that he would make good on his threats. That he’d kill me to keep me from going to the sheriff, so I ran.”
Mrs. Wake had stood by and listened, but her cheeks blazed with anger. “My husband... He wouldn’t have left those girls like that. He was their mentor. He cared about them.”
Peyton’s gaze rose to meet the woman’s. “He did leave them, Mrs. Wake. I’m sorry, and I don’t mean to hurt you. I was a stupid teenager back then, but he slept with me, and then he tried to sleep with Ruth. And he caused the others to die that day.”
Mrs. Wake planted her hands on her hips. “No, you seduced him and now you’ve come back to ruin his reputation.”
“That’s not true,” Peyton said. “I came back to do the right thing because Ruth is dead.”
Mrs. Wake moved toward Peyton, but the lawyer caught her. “Come on, this is not helping. We’ll talk to your husband and get to the bottom of this.”
Chaz faced the group. “Folks, I know you’re angry and feel like exacting your own revenge, but you will go home and let me handle this situation the legal way.”
Mr. Marx started to protest, but Chaz ushered the parents out the door with a stiff reminder that he’d lock them up if they interfered with the case.
Mrs. Wake had dropped into a chair and was massaging her belly. As soon as the parents left, Lambert and the coach’s wife demanded to see Wake. Chaz’s parents hovered, as well.
His mother knelt by Peyton and squeezed her hands. “I know you loved Ruth.”
“I did,” Peyton said in a low voice. “I’m so sorry. I thought— I’d hoped that she’d escaped that day. I didn’t know he’d killed her.”
His father wasn’t as forgiving. “If you’d stuck around and come to us, maybe we would have found her in time and she’d still be alive.”